What drags down the Single European Sky project?

By Aistė Pagirėnaitė & Aleksandra Elfacheva

Imagine that from now on, flying to Paris, Rome, Barcelona or any other European city would take 10 minutes less and you would not have to spend hours in the airport because of another annoying delay. The European Commission launched an initiative called Single European Sky that could make this become true. The project began more than 15 years ago and one of the most important steps should have been finished by 2012. Should have, but was not. So, why is this appealing initiative starting to look like a can of worms?

Single Sky to solve problems in EU airspace

What kind of problems does European airspace have? Well, it has a few: delays, non-direct flights, long landing and taking-off time on runways. A Performance Review Report shows that these inefficiencies create more than €5 billion in extra costs for airspace users per year.

All the problems stem from fragmented airspace. Every time a plane enters the airspace of a different state, it is serviced by a local air navigation service provider on the basis of different rules and equipment. This fragmentation affects overall performance and adds cost.

The solution can lie within the Single Sky project. Modern technology, direct flights, increased cooperation between air traffic controllers are supposed to reduce inefficiencies.

Key benefits of the Single European Sky:

  • Managing increased air traffic – according to forecasts, it will be 20 million flights per year – twice as many as now
  • Aircrafts will arrive within one minute of planned arrival time
  • Travel time reduced by an average of 10 minutes
  • Inefficiency costs reduced by € 3 billion per year
  • Better flight procedures will save € 6 billion in fuel cost per year – that means cheaper flights
  • CO2 emissions reduced approximately 18 million tons per year because of the efficient routes

(Source: A Blueprint for the Single European Sky report, IATA)

usa graph

Inefficiency problems of European airspace can be seen by comparing its air traffic performance to the one in the US, which has approximately the same number of airports and amount of airspace to be managed. Source: Eurocontrol

One of the most important steps in creating a single airspace over Europe is implementing FABs – functional airspace blocks. These blocks have to be established regardless of state boundaries. Air traffic service providers from different countries should work hand-in-hand once they are within one FAB.


Where the problems begin

Single European Sky seems to be a very beneficial initiative that all countries should rush to implement as fast as possible. It saves time, helps the environment and saves money. Lots of money. But more than a decade has past and the process of creating a single airspace is far from expectations.

One of the reasons is – the so-called ‘optimization’ of air traffic control centres. To be clear: more efficient airspace means less air traffic control centres needed and, consequently, less air traffic controllers needed. That is why air traffic controllers show concern about losing their jobs. Last year in Germany and France there were plans to strike against putting the Single European Sky into action.

However, current air traffic controllers will not lose their jobs, explains Jean-Marc Roussot, ‎Senior Advisor at Eurocontrol, organisation which takes care of the Single Sky implementation. “But in the future it could be that less of them will be recruited,” he says.

“We are not going to cut on air traffic controllers,” says Nanda Geelvink, spokeswoman at the  German Air Navigation Service Provider DFS.

The European Commission’s official states that if the amount of air traffic control centres is reduced, lots of workers can be made to transfer their working place.

The fear of changes might be a reason for air traffic controllers’ concerns, according to Christel Schaldemose, the European Parliament member from the Socialists & Democrats group.

“When you are trying to harmonize something at a European level, national ways of doing things have a tendency to change. And it is often a complicated process. People would prefer to continue doing what they are used to do. So this fear may be related to how they [air traffic controllers] manage the way of changing from national air control to European air control,” she explains.

скрин очередььь2

Fragmentation of EU airspace is a cause of some inefficiencies, one of them is delays

Unequal FABs cause trouble

Air traffic controllers’ concerns are just the tip of the iceberg. The way FABs were originally created is now one of the reasons behind the slow and complicated implementation of FABs.

“These were purely national initiatives. Nobody told states with which state they should work… So now some of the countries are facing difficulties as they are not able to match their original ambitions. And the reason behind it is the lack of commitment and willingness,” says an official from the European Commission.

But let’s bear in mind the other side of the coin – the European Commission lacked involvement in forming airspace blocks. This is also the reason why such unequal FABs were created.

Some of the airspace blocks consist of 5 or even 7 countries, while some of them – have just 2. And it is not surprising that huge blocks like, for instance, FABEC, that consists of countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands and has a high air traffic flow, is lagging behind in carrying out the Single Sky goals.

At the same time, small airspace blocks like UK-Ireland or Danish-Swedish can freely say that they have met the requirements.

“We have been successful because the cooperation between Denmark and Sweden is a project we started long before the Single Sky concept was presented,” says Niels Remmer, Head of Division at the Danish Transport Authority. “We had a head start, so to say… Besides, the countries are culturally very similar. Legal systems are very alike and so is the way of thinking. Countries like Germany and France have big differences, so it is not surprising that they have difficulties getting to the level of mutual cooperation, compared to the one we have reached.”

Although, the European Commission seems to be not satisfied with the lack of ambition in creating these easy-to-carry out airspace blocks.

“I personally think that the way the FABs were created was wrong in the first place,” says an official from European Commission. “Denmark and Sweden always had a strong cooperation. That goes for the UK and Ireland as well. So the benefit of establishing a FAB was, in fact, very small. All the cooperation they could have established was almost already done. These countries should have included other states to cooperate.”

That is why the Danish-Swedish block had already been asked by the Commission to work with the North European block.

“If you are a politician, it is better for you to have a smaller FAB. If you are customer, I would say: let’s be more ambitious. It is also harder, but in the end – you gain more benefit,” adds the official.

Untitled Infographic

States seek to keep sovereignty

Now the European Commission is trying to put the Single Sky project back on track, pressuring the countries that are lagging behind. In 2014 it urged the FABEC countries to take more serious action towards carrying out the single airspace requirements. Making countries like France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands speed up the process is crucial for the whole Single Sky initiative.

“The Commission put its finger on this particular area [Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris airports], because if this particular core area does not show significant improvement, it will have an impact on the entire European airspace,” explains Roussot, Senior Advisor at Eurocontrol.

Jean-Marc Roussot, Senior Advisor at Eurocontrol, says that some countries face pressure from the Commission and air traffic controllers

Jean-Marc Roussot, Senior Advisor at Eurocontrol, says that some countries face pressure from the Commission and air traffic controllers

This year Germany was even referred to the EU Court of Justice for failing to regularly monitor all aviation security measures at some German airports. Since an increased level of safety is one of the Single Sky goals, it seems that the Commission is trying to drive hesitant countries into a corner. While another side – local air traffic controllers – are putting the squeeze on it.

And let’s not forget about countries’ own national interests. Now each member state has its own air navigation service provider which takes care of managing air traffic control centres. Once FABs are fully implemented, much closer cooperation between air navigation service providers in different countries will be needed. There rises an opportunity for them to work more efficiently and, as a result, to earn more money.

But merging with each other does not seem like a possibility, at least for now, because even the raised level of cooperation between air traffic service providers causes difficulties.

“That is always a challenge because they [air traffic service providers] have to learn how to cooperate with each other, share practices, information and processes in a very delicate domain that is control of airspace,” says Jakub Adamowicz, the European Commission’s spokesperson for Transport.

Since most of European air service providers are state-owned, governments could try to put pressure on their providers to merge with one another. But that is a question of airspace management sovereignty that no country wants to lose.

“That is a purely political choice,” says Roussot, Eurocontrol’s Advisor.

Have FABs become outmoded?

And finally – countries may feel that putting FABs in action is not the best option. Why? Because airspace blocks were created years ago and now there are other innovative possibilities.

For example, one of the Single Sky’s key components – free route air space – may seem enough to carry out. Its implementation in Sweden, Ireland and Portugal started in 2009 and now is expanding to other countries. It will revolutionise airspace management, allowing planes to fly more directly from one point to another.

So why then FABs are necessary?

“That is the question a number of professionals ask me. The European Commission believed years ago that FAB was a panacea. But it is not. There is more performance improvement expected from full implementation of the free route airspace than from the FABs,” says Roussot, Senior Advisor at Eurocontrol.

However, airspace blocks are still needed as an organizational improvement, he adds.

“FABs will allow to carry out technical and operational cost-efficient solutions at the same pace. But they would not improve operational tasks directly,” says Roussot.


Will Single Sky do more harm than good for environment?